From February 13th to 14th 2014, the Asia Research Institute of the National University of Singapore hosted a conference about the Discrepancies Between Behavior and Attitudes Toward Marriage And Fertility in Asia. Time-honored pro-family attitudes towards marriage and childbearing continue to hold sway in Asia, at odds with the plummeting fertility levels, the trend towards later marriage, and increasing rates of “effective singlehood” in some countries there. However, the idea of the family is starting to shift away from simple heteronormative nuclear families, towards variations like cohabitation and extra-marital fertility.
In the Philippines, as outlined by Jeofrey B. Abalos in his presentation, cohabitation is not unusual, and is often seen as an alternative to marriage. In Bangkok, the social stigma around women remaining unmarried is decreasing. Joo Ean Tan, from Nanyang Technological University, studied unwed older women in Thailand’s capital and noted a significant increase in the number of women in their early forties who never married from 3-4% in 1960 to 20% in 2000. A report from Forbes suggests that by 2030 over 25% of all Chinese men will be single for life, while the BBC has recently noted that 60% of young Japanese men and 50% of women claim to have no romantic partner – a staggeringly high number. Attitudes towards the preferred gender of children have changed as well – patriarchal East Asian societies are moving away from the relentless preferences for sons. Taiwan has reached a level of gender indifference, and Korea has seen a transition from son preference to daughter preference (as enumerated by Yu-Hua Chen from the National Taiwan University, and Ki-Soo Eun from Seoul National University respectively).
Arland Thornton, from the University of Michigan, looked at how Western ideas have recently permeated Asian culture. Globalization, international commerce, and travel has seen Asia import much of the West, not just in terms of technology, but also in terms of a more liberal social system. New ideas and values arise, based around career advancement, self-fulfillment, and material issues and practices such as housing, consumption, and vacations. Traditional Asian values and social and family structures – typically based around getting married young and having lots of children, preferably male – have started to decline when faced with a new cultural system that appears to the youth of today to open more doors and provide more options. We can see this as a shift to a more individualistic approach that has been common in capitalist countries in the west for some time – in this situation, the individual is seen as more important than the collective, and traditional family values are replaced with more consumerist approaches that emphasize career-building for both men and women.
With the slow decline of communism in countries like China and Vietnam, along with the much stronger exposure to capitalism in Japan and Singapore after World War II, we have seen the Western approach starting to take over from the traditional Asian approach. Western media and advertisements encourage the freedom of young people, both men and women, to stay unmarried for longer and to focus on their careers. People have become more individualistic and consumerist in the past three decades across Asia, and now consider the ownership of consumer goods and property just as important as those traditional family structures.
How do these changes in attitudes and behavior occur? Ronald Rindfuss, from the University of North Carolina, explained this phenomenon in his keynote address. Rindfuss examined how institutions like labor markets, housing options, education systems, and the family itself facilitate change. In the same way that the mobilization of women in the workforce powered the women’s liberation movement in America, in Asia too economic development gives the current generation options that their parents did not have to pursue their own career and consumption aspirations, and postpone family life.
The internet and other communication tools like social networks have also had an effect. When people have the opportunity to observe non-traditional families, it creates a feedback loop that alters society’s attitudes. Non-traditional approaches become known, tolerated, and then accepted. In an age of large virtual social networks and almost universal access to the internet, this could well be a mechanism that drives change and acceptance of non-traditional families. Social media also encourage the individualistic approach mentioned above – we are increasingly encouraged to design our own ‘brand’ and use social networking to express our desires, show off our consumption, and advance our careers.
Not all attitudes are changing, it must be noted. Erin Hye-Won Kim and Adam Ka-Lok Cheung, both from the National University of Singapore, found that Confucian philosophy, seniority, and male lineage are still embedded in Korean society, and household duties remain the domain of women. In India, modern, educated women are being granted more flexibility and a greater role in the decision of who they marry, but marriage remains a religious duty and social necessity that binds two families rather than just two individuals.
In some ways this societal change has its benefits. Some traditional practices, particularly the subordination of women to men, need to be change to create a fairer society. But we must be wary of going too far – China, in particular, faces a potentially huge problem if traditional methods of social support break down. If children become too idealistic and do not build up a family unit that can look after their parents in old age, the costs of healthcare and basic living could be crippling to the Chinese state. Equally, it would be a sad thing to completely lose the more communal approach to family life and marriage that is emphasized in Asia – just as it has been lost in the west.
Report prepared by Janice Liu